“There is geometry in the humming of the strings, there is music in the spacing of the spheres.” – Pythagoras
Spatial sense which means an “intuitive feel to understand the shape and space” is an important cognitive milestone in preschoolers. Before we list down shape activities for preschoolers, which can help you expedite the learning and understanding of spatial sense in your little ones, we explain you the shape milestones for 18 to 36 months children and the challenges faced by our preschoolers in learning the shapes.
As a child grows up, the way in which he/she views the world changes. Children, as they grow up, start looking at the world as a space full of objects of varying sizes, colours and shapes. Shape and size are among the first characteristics of any object that a child uses to recognize it. Hence, it is important to cultivate a good spatial sense.
Spatial sense comprises of two main abilities:
- Spatial Orientation
- Spatial Visualization.
Spatial Orientation is the knowledge that helps the child know where he/she is. This knowledge helps the child move around and navigate. A child, for example, needs this knowledge to remember particular locations, remember different routes which lead to-and-fro from these locations and to estimate distances between them. Spatial visualization is the ability to imagine representations of objects in 2D and 3D. Recognition of patterns in shapes of objects around them and the ability to retain that in your memory are important to develop good spatial visualization.
Shape Milestones: 18-24 Month Kid
An 18-month-old has already noticed the basic characteristics of the zillion objects around him. The first property of an object that the child notices is its shape. The various experiences the child has had in its short life have taught it to understand that every object is different due to its shape. For example, the child can differentiate between a cup from a shoe because they have a different shape. The child though is not aware of the properties of shapes. The child at this age also differentiates between objects on the basis of the sense of touch. 
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As children feel the objects, they begin to imagine their structure. Children at this age are able to visualize even the shapes they can’t name. They are able to play simple insert puzzles including basic shapes. Some children can pick up blocks in order of their size. A few children in this age group can also build 3D structures using one kind of block.
Shape Milestone: 24-30 Months Kid
By the age of 2, most children would be unaware of the conventional shape names. In the next six months, however, they show rapid growth in learning the names. In this age group, there is a major leap in their cognitive and verbal acquisition capabilities. Children of age 26-27 months can match basic shapes. Further, for the next few months, they learn to match two identical images.
By the age of 30 months, children are able to identify fundamental forms and can bring this knowledge to practical use when the situation demands it. They can identify basic shapes like square, circle and star, by name. They can draw shapes and odd figures as a combination of two or three shapes. They are capable of categorization of objects on the basis of their shapes.
Shape Milestone: 30-36 months kid
Children in this age group are adept in differentiating shapes on basis of visual imagery. They are keen on learning more shape names as well as the practical uses of shapes. This is the right time to expose them to embedded systems. Embedded system in this context refers to the embedding of a shape onto a real-life object. For example, they can learn that a clock or a chapati is a circle, dinner table or a notebook is a rectangle and a pizza slice is a triangle.
Generally, they are still unable to understand the properties that define a shape (e.g.: a square has four equal sides). Their ability to categorize objects based on shape is at a visual level rather than at a property level While normally it is difficult for 2.5–3 years-old child to understand the different orientations of the same shape, some children may be able to understand them.
At the end of the third year:
- Children can draw, name and imagine shapes.
- They can match similar shapes of same size and orientation.
- They are able to stack shapes to form lines, although they cannot create large structures.
- They can sort and categorize objects on the basis of basic shapes.
- Some of them may also be able to match shapes of varying sizes and orientations.
- A small number of children can informally create symmetric 2D shapes.
- A small number of children can draw 3D structures without or with symmetry.
- A small number of children may name 3D objects by the name of one of its faces (calling cube as a square or a cylinder as a circle)
3 Important Challenges Faced by Children in Learning Shapes:
1. Object Labelling and Property Description by Caregivers:
A general difficulty that a child faces while learning shapes is the ambiguity between the name of an object and its property. While describing an object, we generally tend to focus on the noun for whole object (“This is a clock.”) before describing the property (“It is a circle”). The child here does not know whether a circle is a property of clock or just another name for it. To remove such ambiguity, we should prefer to use a comparative approach to clarify the concept of shape. To continue the same example forward, the child will understand the concept more easily if we are emphasizing that clock, chappati and a plate are all circles. On a similar note, the concept of a circle is understood more easily when the shape is differentiated with other shapes such a triangle (pizza piece) or rectangle (book).
2. The difficulty of a Child in Understanding Mutual Exclusivity and Dual Representation of Objects:
Another problem experienced while naming embedded objects is that a child may not feel comfortable to override his thinking that one object can be referred by only one name. It takes a while for children to understand that a single object can have multiple names and properties associated with it. For example, the child may disagree with the fact that a plate is also a circle. This concept of mutual exclusivity needs to be removed from the child’s mind to learn about the properties of objects. One simple tactic is to represent objects with multiple descriptions, like “This is a clock and it is a circle.”
3. Over-emphasis on Fundamental Shape Forms by Caregivers:
It is very effective to provide regular exposure to children towards canonical (fundamental) shapes in the early years. But an excessive focus on fundamental forms can be a liability to further the concept to the variants of basic shapes. Research has shown that a 2-3-year-old child can classify objects on the basis of shapes but is also quite flexible in his approach for a particular shape. But an exclusive exposure to fundamental forms for a prolonged time can hinder this ability. For example, a child may refuse to accept scalene or obtuse as a form of a triangle if they have been taught about the triangle shape only with equilateral form. To avoid such problems, we must teach them using various variants of fundamental shapes.
Shape Activities for Preschoolers:
Here are a few shape activities for preschoolers for developing a good spatial sense in your child:
1. Proper Exposure to Basic shapes:
A good amount of time must be given to the child to learn the basic shapes and their classification. Once the child has grasped the fundamental shapes well, it becomes much easier to master the more advanced concepts.
2. Pointing Games:
The world is full of shapes. All we have to do is point them to our toddlers and tell the name of the shape. You can play games like “I can see a square. Can you see it? Show me where.”
3. Use same shapes with different colours, and different shapes of same colours:
This will make your child understand that a “Square” can be “red” or “blue”. It makes them aware that colours and shapes are different properties belonging to the same object.
4. Correct their mistakes:
Correct their mistakes in a positive manner. If a child refers to a square window as a circle, saying “No, it is not a circle” will not help. It is better to say, “No, it’s a square”. You can go a step further and say, “No, It is a square. And that ring over there is a circle.”
5. Non-embedded Forms, till the age of 30 months:
Avoiding usage of embedded system till the child is 21/2 years old. Use of embedded systems before this age is potentially confusing to the child. Instead focus on explain fundamental shapes using books or pegged puzzles or other shape specific toys.
6. Matching and Sorting:
A child shall be able to match objects on the basis of their shape by the age of 27-28 months. Activities like sorting various objects can be performed using toy sorters or pegged puzzles. Children can also be asked to classify similar objects or pick up objects similar to the one we are holding.
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7. Finding objects from a bag:
A child can be asked to pick out objects from a bag that are similar to the one kept outside. A child as young as 18-20 months old shall use his sense of touch to fulfil the task, while older children might be using their matching skills.
A few children can stack objects on the basis of shapes to form 3D structures. Use of Lego blocks or magnetic tiles can be quite handy in teaching them about the three-dimensional world. Building small structures using various shapes will make them understand will improve their spatial imagination.
9. Rhymes and Music:
Children show better learning outcomes when taught with the help of rhymes and music. There are various rhymes available that teach the concept of shapes like the famous Nursery Rhyme “We are shapes you can see us everywhere” which teaches a preschooler about basic shapes.
We hope you liked our blog on “Shape Activities for Preschoolers”. If you know any other shape activities for preschoolers that we have missed here, please share in the comment section below.
Mayank Mishra contributed towards the research for this article.
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MATHEMATICS LEARNING in Early ChildhoodPaths Toward Excellence and EquityCommittee on Early Childhood MathematicsChristopher T. Cross, Taniesha A. Woods, and Heidi Schweingruber, EditorsCenter for Education Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education